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Is L.A. losing its Italian restaurants run by actual Italians?

LOS ANGELES-CA- March 22, 2016: Pisarei E Fas? --Jonathan Gold review of Officine Brera at 1331 E 6th St, Los Angeles,
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)
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Italian days ... beef jerky and pickled eggs ... Roy Choi’s new primal tacos ... and the man who ate everything at the Cheesecake Factory. I’m Laurie Ochoa, general manager of L.A. Times Food, with this week’s Tasting Notes.

‘It tastes Italian’

Customers dine in a restaurant with a high ceiling and skylights
The dining room at Brera as it looked in 2016.
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

I visited an old friend of a restaurant recently. One I hadn’t checked on since before the pandemic.

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It’s undergone a bit of a name change — from Officine Brera, a name that reflected the workshop spirit Matteo Ferdinandi, Angelo Auriana and Francine Diamond-Ferdinandi brought to one of the early big build-outs in L.A.’s now bustling Arts District, to the more established Brera Ristorante.

Yet entering Brera from the industrial downtown landscape still felt a little like walking into one of those pop-up books where a wonderland of an elaborate big-city restaurant opens up — a little bit steampunk with fine Barolos and Nebbiolos swirling in the wine glasses of customers that range from young to old, party-hearty singles to mellow foodies.

“Whoa,” my college-age son said when he tasted the tagliatelle with what the menu calls “Brera’s secret beef bolognese sauce.” “It tastes like Italy.”

I understood immediately. Whenever I arrive in Italy and take my first bite of pasta, I know I’m not in Los Angeles anymore. There’s something ineffable that comes through — a sense of place, tradition, a mix of ingredients that go beyond recipes.

Might the secret of the tagliatelle’s secret sauce be the Bergamo-born Auriana’s Italian instincts that he passes on to his capable team of chefs at Brera — and the more casual Factory Kitchen (an even earlier Arts District pioneer where the handkerchief pasta called mandilli di seta is still fantastic)?

Certainly, you don’t have to be Italian to cook great Italian food. Evan Kleiman showed us the way in Los Angeles back in the 1980s with her game-changing Melrose Avenue Angeli Caffe. But in those days, the template of what we now know of as Italian food in Los Angeles was set by actual Italians. Two in particular, Pierro Selvaggio and the late Mauro Vincente, were so influential that they came to be known by their first names: Mauro and Pierro. Indeed, Auriana made his name in Los Angeles at Selvaggio’s Santa Monica restaurant Valentino. A bit later, Celestino Drago started his mini empire of Italian spots in Southern California.

Lately, however, we’ve seen fewer Italian restaurants run by actual Italians. This hit home with our critic Bill Addison’s list of 10 Italian spots in L.A. from the most recent 101 Best Restaurants guide. Only one of the 10 restaurants, Angelini Osteria, whose chef Gino Angelini was raised in Emilia Romagna, is run by an Italian. (Though 搁辞蝉蝉辞产濒耻’蝉 Steve Samson wisely put a Puglian chef, Francesco Allegro, in charge of the pasta.)

All of the restaurants Addison praises are worthy of the accolades. But as I ate from a bowl of beautiful pisarei — tender bread gnocchetti tossed with duck sugo — and sipped one of the more affordable Nebbiolos from the steep vineyards of the Valle d’Aosta chosen by the gracious Diamond-Ferdinandi, I thought, yes, it’s a good thing that we Angelenos have learned to love and cook great regional Italian cuisine. At the same time, I hope a new wave of young Italian chefs will find their way to L.A. and bring a whole new set of ideas for us to explore. I hear from Modena’s Massimo Bottura that his young chef at Gucci Osteria, Mattia Agazzi, is trying out some of his own fresh ideas. Worth checking out!

Long Beach crush

Salt and pepper shrimp gets tossed in a wok at Sophy's: Cambodia Town Food & Music, on March 11, 2024 in Long Beach
Salt and pepper shrimp gets tossed in a wok at Sophy’s: Cambodia Town Food & Music in Long Beach.
(Ron De Angelis / For The Times)
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Beef jerky and pickled eggs ... two great Long Beach specialties from two very different but beloved institutions just a three-minute drive apart. Jenn Harris’ review of Sophy’s: Cambodian Town Food & Music, where the beef jerky is a can’t-miss dish and her separate column on the soon-to-be 100-year-old bar Joe Jost’s, where pickled eggs line the bar, brought back memories of eating in Long Beach’s Cambodia Town back when nearly all of the restaurants serving the cuisine were almost exclusively on Anaheim Boulevard, as former Times contributor Linda Burum reported in 1990.

Roy Choi gets primal

Kogi founder Roy Choi sprinkles seasoning on his al pastor at his new venture, street stand Tacos por Vida in Palms.
Kogi founder Roy Choi prepares al pastor at his new venture, street stand Tacos por Vida in Palms.
(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

“Other chefs are looking for ‘soigné’ or ‘excellent,’ ‘delicious,’ ‘fantastic’ ... all those words that they use,” chef Roy Choi told Food’s Stephanie Breijo at his new Tacos por Vida in Palms. “I’m looking for ‘f—.’ If people say ‘f—,’ it’s primal.”

Breijo got an up-close look at Choi’s “first L.A. restaurant debut since 2016.”

And don’t miss Breijo’s report from reopening day of L.A.’s beloved Cafe Tropical.

Great Australian Bite

If you’re a cookbook collector, you’ve likely seen at least some of the books by Australian chef Josh Niland, especially “The Whole Fish Cookbook,” which was Book of the Year winner at the 2020 James Beard Awards. Or maybe you’ve been lucky enough to eat at his Sydney restaurant Saint Peter restaurant and fish butchery, where he applies a nose-to-tail approach to fish and seafood. Those of us in Southern California will have a chance to experience Niland’s cooking April 10 on the Malibu Pier when he joins Melbourne chef Jo Barrett, who is the Age Good Food Guide’s 2024 Chef of the Year and known for her no-waste kitchen practices, along with L.A. chef (via Australia) Monty Koludrovic of Hollywood’s the Living Room. It’s an L.A. Times and Tourism Australia collaboration. Tickets are available here.

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